have been reading and thinking about the events of 410 for over
thirty years, but never with the intensity and compassion that
I have known since that other ghastly day last September. So forgive
me: I am a historian, and I have a story to tell this afternoon.
History of this kind offers us a way to think about our world
--but it offers no obvious or simple answers to our questions.
I hope you will give me leave to provoke you for a while.
government's response to the crisis was military and ineffective.
The Roman emperor had years earlier moved his western court to
the northern Italian city of Ravenna, protected by surrounding
marshes and with a sea-lane for escape, but he sent his troops
to pursue the enemy, then negotiate with him, then pursue him
some more. From the official perspective, the issue was simple:
barbarism versus civilization. The renegade general and his followers
were demonized, pursued, and feared. Within a few years, they
had migrated to what is now modern Spain and settled there, establishing
a regime that thrived independent of Rome for 300 years--until
the Islamic invasions.
years that followed were marked by a series of such migrations.
The Spanish kingdom we call Visigothic, after the ancestral people
of their generals. Within the century, Roman Africa fell into
the hands of the Vandals from northern Europe, Roman Gaul into
the hands of the Franks (who would give their country a name it
still holds), and Italy itself became the homeland of the Ostrogoths.
Barbarism had triumphed. To be sure, Roman armies in this period
were recruited heavily from among the same peoples, and it happened
more than once in the fifth century that you could not tell the
Romans on a given battlefield without a scorecard--on one occasion
two different contenders for the imperial throne itself fought
each other through proxy armies led respectively by Vandals and
on the ground, it is far from clear that these developments constituted
a defeat for civilization. Within a decade of the sack of Rome,
Alaric's successor was being quoted as saying that in his youth
he had thought to overthrow the Roman empire and replace it with
a Gothic one, but now in power he saw that his people needed the
law and structure of Roman civilization to have peace and prosperity
for themselves. All of those "barbarian" kingdoms would soon rewrite
the Roman law codes for local use and practice, in eloquent testimony
to the power of the greatest of Roman civil achievements.
government persisted in demonizing the barbarian, and the politics
of the fifth and sixth centuries persisted in seeing the challenges
of the age as military and technological. They could not have
known or heard the lesson of a famous line from the modern French
poet Paul Valery: "Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing
one sees." The Romans of that age knew exactly what they were
seeing--and it made them blind to the reality around them.
so the long dance of Roman armies and barbarian ones played out,
and in the end, Rome was the loser. Preoccupation with barbarians
took attention away from another more threatening military frontier,
the one shared with Persia, and gradually Roman resolve and strength
were worn away there. When Islam arose in the seventh century,
the remaining Roman power, headquartered at Constantinople (modern
Istanbul) was unable to mount more than a token resistance.
the final irony is important to grasp. You may have visited modern
Rome or seen pictures of its ancient ruins, and you may be thinking
that the events of 410 of which I spoke earlier can explain what
you have seen. Not so.
greatest destruction visited upon the city of Rome, the depredations
that left most of the city a prey to malaria and a home to oxen
and owls for a thousand years, came not from barbarian invaders
but Roman ones. In the mid-sixth century, the reigning emperor
at Constantinople, preoccupied with his vision of barbarism versus
civilization, sent his own mercenary army (containing, to be sure,
a good many fighters of non-Roman stock) to recapture Italy for
the empire. The fifteen years of war that followed were responsible
for the destruction of much of the physical fabric of Rome, and
responsible as well for shattering the political and social unity
of the peninsula that had been built up laboriously through many
centuries. From the sixth century to the nineteenth, there was
no Italy, only a peninsula divided among pieces of other people's
property. That disarray was the result not of barbarism, but of
self-styled civilization run amok.
it have been otherwise? Was there an alternate future in the aftermath
of the sack of Rome? Choices in history are hard to see as we
live the history, but perhaps a little easier to see from a distance.
of the refugees from the events of August 410 landed up in a grimy
seaport city in Africa, then called Hippo Regius, today the city
of Annaba in Algeria. A backwater by any standards, it owed its
standing to its harbor, through which the grain and olive supply
of the province of Numidia--think of it as the Roman Nebraska--came
down to the sea for shipment to the capital city. It was a natural
place for wealthy refugees to make landfall, and a fair number
of them indeed owned the great Numidian estates in the breadbasket
leading figure of the city of Hippo in those days was the Christian
bishop, Aurelius Augustinus, known to us as Augustine. He was
at this period a minor provincial figure, known within a limited
circle for some of his theological writing (including the Confessions),
but deeply engaged in local politics and church politics, fighting
a relentless battle against other sects of his own religion. An
indefatigable social climber, he made his way among the wealthy
refugees, and found there disturbing ideas in circulation. Perhaps,
it was being said, the sack of Rome came from a religious failure.
For centuries we worshipped the old gods in the old ways and they
protected the city; now in the last century we have given allegiance
to a puzzling kind of new age religion--Christianity--and a fat
lot of good it has done us.
could not stand such defeatism, and so began to write a book.
His motives were self-interested and polemical, but the book quickly
transcended its moment. Over the next two decades, starting from
that moment of crisis and doubt, Augustine elaborated his view
of human society and human history in the twenty two books of
his work entitled the City of God.
book was finished long after the sack of Rome had faded from the
newspapers and before the next wave of invasions trapped Augustine
in his own city, where he died in 430. What marks the book is
its dramatic and inclusive vision of a society that transcends
the divisions of that particular time. This is not the place to
outline its contents or its theology, but it should be easy enough
for you to imagine the perspective, so familiar is it to moderns.
The organizing principle of human history for Augustine was not
membership in a given nation or state, but participation in a
society that was notionally worldwide in its scope and eternal
in its duration.
point is not to test how much of that particular vision may still
make sense today, but to emphasize its visionary quality. In a
world where governments and soldiers emphasized division, Augustine
found a way to emphasize inclusion. His criterion of inclusion
was less than absolutely world-wide, of course, depending as it
did on the Christian religion. But all the barbarians whom men
feared in those days, all of them, were Christians of one stripe
or another. To speak of a Christian vision of society, then, was
to find a way to talk about humankind that embraced potentially
all the warring and suspicious parties of the time.
generals, and armies were little influenced by African bishops
and their books. But the grassroots organization of Christianity--
in large measure sponsored by government suppression of their
opponents --had spread far enough and wide enough in those days
to make a difference. When the supposedly "barbarian" communities
of the western Mediterranean made their peace and settled down
in the fifth and sixth centuries, bishops and monks were the community
leaders who made sense of the world, along lines not very different
from what Augustine laid out. If you want a hero for this story,
you want perhaps not Augustine but Theoderic. Theoderic was the
Ostrogothic king of Italy from 490 to 526 CE, a time that contemporaries
spoke of as a golden age, when you could leave your money lying
by the side of the road at night and find it there untouched in
the morning--an exaggeration perhaps, but an exaggeration that
speaks volumes for the social order that underlay it. Under his
leadership, sects of Christians who engaged in mutual persecution
in other lands lived side by side in remarkable harmony. You can
visit Theoderic's massive tomb today in Ravenna, or read his words
on at least one Penn website: "civilitas," the Latin word
for something like "civility" or even "civilization", was his
favorite theme. Not bad for a supposed "barbarian".
if books are mostly ineffective as instruments of social change
in the short term, they can, however, be persuasive in the long
run. It can and should be argued and understood that the peculiarly
European vision of humankind that gives birth eventually to the
university tradition we embody today in our robes and rituals
and to a whole series of widening circles of inclusive imagination
of human society goes back to this age. The sense of community
that binds together western nations today, that gave rise to such
diverse organizations as the Catholic Church, the European Union,
and World Cup football take their origins in that late antique
vision of a society whose inclusiveness transcends old and seemingly
what are originally visions of inclusiveness have a way of exhausting
themselves. The Roman empire had lost its ability to embrace new
peoples by the time of which I have been speaking, and it is only
too clear that in our time the traditional religions of the book,
though their wisest practitioners speak well and act fairly, have
lost much of their persuasive inclusiveness. It is indeed precisely
the mode of their claims at universality that puts them most in
conflict with each other.
challenges today are thus obvious and many, but the opportunity
is great as well. Few would have thought in the first half of
the twentieth century that France and Germany could ever live
so much at peace as they do now, and at the height of the Pacific
war, it was unthinkable that Japan and the United States could
ever become the allies they have now become. Our current strife
may find its own comparable resolution, if we are wise and generous
and visionary. Whether the vision we need comes from theologians
or politicians or holders of McDonald's franchises is very much
in doubt. I take some encouragement from a ragtag band of aging
hippies and young computer scientists who are planning to build
clock they build--and the library that goes with it--will be designed
to live for 10,000 years: the clock of the long now, they call
it, and there is a mountain in Nevada under which they plan to
build it. They are already preparing for the future in ingenious
and whimsical ways. They would report today's date, for example,
as May 12, in the year 02002--the initial zero being their way
of reminding us to begin preparing for the inevitable Y10K crisis,
hurtling towards us in a mere 7,998 years. Their mission is to
encourage all who hear them to think beyond this year, this decade,
or this lifetime, to remember that we live in and share responsibility
for a very long future. To look out to that future is to take
a deep breath and to find a place for ourselves in a narrative
in which our concerns are not so paramount as they inevitably
must be on a day like today.
here may not want to be reminded of this, but very soon now, you
graduates will begin bringing children into the world, children
some of whom will live to see the year 2100. That's already a
"now" long enough to give pause. Those children will see a world
that is surely warmer and more crowded than this one. How else
will it seem? That is for us, and for you, to determine, and that
will be the real test of the value of what you and we have done
here these last four years.
we taught you to think in the long now? Have we taught you to
forget the name of the thing you see, to forget what you think
you know and see what is? Have we taught you to promote civility,
to build civilization among peoples, rather than merely to oppose
hope we have . . .
Melville, Moby-Dick, chapter 13.